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Psychotic, Greedy or Heroic – Which Boss Are You?

Psychotic, Incompetent, Greedy or Heroic? Which boss are you?
Psychotic, Incompetent, Greedy or Heroic? Which boss are you?
  • New research explores how fictional managers like Gordon Gekko, David Brent and Tony Stark help us identify what qualities make for an effective boss
  • Leaders are commonly influenced by similar figures in popular culture
  • Even good and heroic bosses have their failings

An exploration into how popular fiction has shaped modern business management styles has been published, by Dr Martyn Griffin of Durham University Business School.

From Psychopathic, Incompetent or Greedy, to Good or even Heroic, “Fiction and the Identity of the Boss” profiles 100 bosses from film and TV, and categorises them under one of 10 different management types in an attempt to better understand how managers construct their identities.

The categories include;

  • The Psychopathic Boss
  • The Mean Boss
  • The Incompetent Boss
  • The Rule-driven Boss
  • The Greedy Boss
  • The Renegade Boss
  • The Burdened Boss
  • The Heroic Boss
  • The Predatory Boss
  • The Good Boss

The categorisation is an extension of a wider, ongoing research project Dr Griffin has been conducting with fellow Durham University Business School Professor Mark Learmonth, “Fiction and the Identity of the Manager”, which has been included in “The Oxford Handbook of Identities in Organisations”. The aim of the list, according to the researchers, is to help us to better understand the values we appreciate in a boss, identify which traits are needed and, most interestingly, which should be abandoned in order to help define a more successful leadership style for the future.

Dr Griffin says, “The influence of TV and film on the identity of the modern manager is undeniable. Whilst writers, directors and actors often draw upon their own experiences to represent how bosses act in organizational life, these portrayals also feed back in to how managers themselves construct their identities in the workplace, by consciously or unconsciously embracing their behaviours.”

According to the list, the Psychotic Boss (portrayed by Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians) highlights the narcissistic, amoral and single-minded pursuit of success all too often found in leaders – who have no problem with prioritising their personal success over the wellbeing of their staff. Whilst such characters are no doubt unpleasant to work for, Dr Griffin notes that, like in most popular fiction, such characters ultimately get their comeuppance. 

The Greedy Boss – a persona that Dr Griffin says is synonymous with the CEOs who contributed to the 2008 financial crisis – is depicted by Mr Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life, whilst the Incompetent Boss is stylised most notably by the hapless David Brent in the original UK version of The Office and his American counterpart Michael Scott in the US remake of the series. These figures represent the significant lack of self-awareness prevalent in many bosses, who fail to realise that the way they view themselves is wildly different to the perception held by their staff.

Interestingly, despite some rather aspirational titles, no management identity on the list is without fault or weaknesses. Though the Heroic Bosses (most notably portrayed by Tony Stark – AKA Iron Man in the Marvel superhero comics) epitomise the idea that the boss is the solution to all of an organisation’s woes, possessing superhuman qualities to not just get the job done but to make it better too, they notably take problems too much upon their own shoulders and fail to share the responsibility. They also each have their own form of Kryptonite that brings them down.

Dr Griffin acknowledges that there is no one box for any boss as it is not just their actions but their intentions that characterise their style. For example, the Good Boss category is not reserved solely for those that turn profits whilst simultaneously investing in their employees, it includes conflicted characters. Ted Hastings from BBC police drama Line of Duty, and Judi Dench’s portrayal of “M” in the Bond film Skyfall are identified as such characters – good bosses whose decisions may not always be popular but whose intentions are always in service of the greater good.

Though the researchers’ list is a light-hearted approach to analysing the mindset of the modern boss, it points to a more serious consideration for the future of successful business leadership. Dr Griffin says, “The purpose is to understand what kinds of implicit messages are going out to people about expectations around being a manager and being managed. This list captures the way that fictional portrayals of bosses are drawn from the real world and how, indeed, people watching depictions of managers on screen will flow back out in to society and culture, continually shaping our perceptions about what it is to be a manager. 

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